Business

Consumer Alert

In renting a summer place, watch out for scams

If you’re looking to lock in a vacation rental, whether it’s in Maine or on the Cape, it’s about that time of year. Just as most folks know that summer rentals are booking up, so do the scammers.

So it’s time to brush up on the vacation rental business and how scams present themselves. While there are certainly legitimate private party ads for properties, that’s where you’re most likely to encounter a scam. It’s best to avoid those ads, but if you can’t resist, tread ever so carefully.

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Scam ads typically look legit. Many are simply copies of real rental ads. They might even have great pictures or a map.

But if you’re intent on avoiding a real estate agency or an established vacation rental site, it’s on you to verify the ad. Start by making sure the person renting the property is really the owner or has been hired by the owner to find renters.

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Ideally, you should be able to visit the property and review the contract before paying anything. Resist pressure for an immediate decision and payment.

Here are a few tips from Tom Gilmore, chief executive and founder of Newburyport-based VacationHomeRentals.com:

ª Do homework before you book. Have a phone conversation with the owner or representative rather than just relying on e-mail. Ask for references so you can contact prior renters.

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ª Beware of poor grammar in e-mails and foreign phone numbers. Scammers are often in other countries and may not have full command of English.

ª Never send payment by wire transfer, prepaid debit card, or money transfer services.

Even when everything goes well, be aware that vacation rentals tend to defy most consumer norms because owners try to force a commitment from renters to avoid losing money to cancellations. So they typically ask for large deposits — perhaps 50 percent plus a security deposit upfront and the balance a few weeks prior. One reason: It can take a couple of weeks for someone to find out a check isn’t legitimate.

If you walk down a well-worn path, you’ll have the best chance at a scam-free vacation.

Mitch Lipka has been helping consumers out of jams for the past two decades. He lives in Worcester and also writes the Consumer Alert blog on Boston.com. Mitch can be reached at ConsumerNews@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @mitchlipka.
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